COVID-19 and the Dangers of Certitude
This is the second installment in a 3-part series on uncertainty during COVID-19
This is the second installment in a 3-part series on uncertainty during COVID-19, drawing on my dissertation research on foreign policy responses to crises.
The word “crisis” comes from the ancient Greek word krisis, meaning “decision.” Several hundred years ago, crisis came to mean a “decision point” — a point at which our choices can either doom or save us, as in when a person’s medical condition is rapidly deteriorating.
In my previous post, I explained why, as world leaders approached the decision point on COVID-19, so many of them fell victim to indecision — quite literally, in the Greek sense, avoiding the crisis. The rational need to make the optimal choice led them, in the face of uncertainty, to make the worst choice — to wait — causing needless death and economic damage. Hence, the Uncertainty Trap.
Unfortunately, that’s not where uncertainty’s pernicious role ends. If we make bad decisions that prolong the crisis, we’re forced to contend with yet more decision points and ever-growing uncertainty. As researchers have found across fields as diverse as neurology, psychology, economics, and sociology, people will go to great lengths to avoid this kind of uncertainty.
When delays and denial fail to address uncertainty, certitude sets in. Certitude — a sense of absolute certainty — can be a force for good during crises, a harbinger of hope in dark times. One need only imagine the world without Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech after the crisis of Dunkirk, or FDR’s insistence on “absolute victory,” as smoke was still rising over Pearl Harbor.
But certitude can also be dangerous and destructive. Nazism serves as probably the worst example of certitude stemming from crisis. But think of any major “ism,” and you’ll find a deep, uncertain crisis at its core.
We live in a very different world now, but certitude can still sow plenty of destruction — human, social, economic, as well as international.
Like other major crises, COVID-19 will likely lead to an explosion in public certitude, especially in places that continue to struggle, such as the United States. It will shape the damage wrought by this virus, election results, long-lasting social and economic policies and, likely, U.S. relations with China and the rest of the world.
So we should try to understand it better: Where does this certitude come from?
It all begins with stories.
The Stories We Tell
People have a strong and well-documented need for stories. Stories help define who we are in relation to our environment. They help dispel uncertainty and bring a sense of predictability to our lives. We tell ourselves stories all the time: about god, love, and justice; about friends and enemies; about ourselves; and about why things happen the way they do.
Crises make us crave stories for two main reasons.
First, crises and the uncertainty they bring prevent us from figuring out what to do next. Stories can explain what happened and how we should fix it. In this way, they help guide our actions, serving an important practical purpose.
For some of us, stories can also serve a psychological purpose, because crises sometimes represent an implosion of our existing story. We thought the world worked one way, and suddenly we realize we were totally wrong. As the ground slips beneath our feet, we urgently need a new story to redefine not just our future, but our past.
The thing about these stories is that, regardless of their purpose, they can be incredibly sticky. We choose them because they help us, but we keep them because we’re afraid of the uncertainty, vulnerability, and just sheer amount of work involved in changing them.
The result is that we readily accept evidence that supports our stories, ignore evidence that contradicts them (i.e., “confirmation bias”), and overstate our confidence in them.
The Dangers of Certitude
It’s now easy to see some of the ways in which our need for stories and subsequent certitude could be damaging.
At the most basic level, when we selectively choose which evidence to believe, we become more likely to make mistakes. All the while, real problems might go unaddressed because we’ve plastered over them.
But there’s an even greater danger. Stories, after all, come from somewhere. Political leaders play a disproportionately important role in shaping which stories we consider and embrace. Leaders naturally tend to advance stories that align with their interests and worldviews. Equally important, they sometimes control the information we need to evaluate these stories.
When certitude aligns with the interests of the powerful, the risk of disaster increases. We’re no longer simply blinded by our internal biases, but now also by misinformation and partisan allegiances. We go into our respective corners. We fight each other. We hunt for scapegoats.
Certitude and COVID-19
None of us, least of all I, know what the post-COVID-19 world will look like. Some things are more likely than others, but there are too many variables and too many unknown unknowns to be confident about much.
Still, knowing to look for certitude in us and in others can be useful. It can help us avoid, for example, being excessively confidence and mean with those who disagree with us, taking unwise risks with our financial investments, or becoming pawns in someone else’s game.
Because of the continued health and economic crisis in the United States, there’s a reasonable chance that certitude will come to play a sizable role here in the coming months and years. One of its likely targets is China, which is gradually becoming more central to Trump’s emerging storyline.
It’s not only where the virus first emerged and where authorities acted far too late; it’s also a target that’s hard for Democrats to resist, due to its trade practices and human rights abuses.
Still, one might wonder, what does China have to do with America’s own failings? Very little, but from the Trump Administration’s perspective, that’s exactly the point of the story.
Other scapegoats might soon include Anthony Fauci and other healthcare leaders, who could be painted as responsible for one of America’s worst economic crises.
I’m concerned that if we let these or similar storylines prevail, root problems will go unaddressed and new problems will be created.
So what can we do about it? I’ll address this more fully in my next post, but it starts with recognizing that certitude, whether in ourselves or in others, is in truth just a symptom of great uncertainty.
Facts and evidence are of little value once certitude has taken hold. But if we tackle that underlying uncertainty, we stand a chance.